We had rushed out of our hotel in Nice to make it to the station in time. In our haste we had left our passports in the room. I sat on the train for the 20 minute journey feeling annoyed with myself. Would I regret this? We were entering another country after all. Surely Monaco would not have strict border controls in place that would send us back to our hotel?
We needn’t have worried. Getting off the train in Monaco is much like any other station on the French railway system. Within a few moments of emerging from the station’s underground tunnels we were at the waterfront, surrounded by some of the world’s largest, swankiest yachts.
Monaco is one of the small group of six European principalities and on the face of it has no reason to be a stand-alone nation. It is the world’s second smallest country (after Vatican City), stretching less than two miles from end to end and extending inland only half a mile from its picturesque shoreline. Yet its independence from its only neighbour France has been recognised for 150 years, while the ruling Grimaldi family have held sway in Monaco for over 700 years.
But enough of the facts; what is there to do or see as a visitor to Monaco? There are probably three distinct areas of the principality to explore, and all three can comfortably be experienced in the same day.
The Old City
High on a hill overlooking the harbour is Monaco-Ville, the old part of town. Upon reaching the top of the hill (a brisk 10-15 minute walk from the road below) the first building to greet the visitor is the Palais Princier. It is worth a look inside to see the many gifts that the leader of a nation receives from others, even when that nation is the size of a small town elsewhere. An audio-guide is included in the ticket and serves the purpose more of pushing people through the palace at lightning speed than actually providing useful information.
We chanced upon the changing of the guard which takes places each day at 11:55. If you’re in Monaco and struggling to make it up to the palace to see this in time, relax. You won’t miss much despite the huge crowds of tourists that gather for the spectacle.
The biggest draw for many to Monaco is the legend of Grace Kelly, the actress turned princess who died in a car crash at the age of 52. Her pictures are found throughout the palace and her tomb in the nearby cathedral attracts a steady crowd. When we visited the cathedral we met a group of bemused American folks on a cruise excursion who had passed the small row of tombs but hadn’t worked out which one belonged to the late princess, despite only one being adorned with flowers.
The old town is perfect for a stroll, especially as the narrow streets offer shady relief from the midday heat. The large Oceanographic museum, once managed by Jacques Cousteau, is the other major attraction in the old town. Even if you don’t choose to venture inside it’s worth a wander down the adjacent steps to the cliff top to see the building’s impressive sea-facing facade.
Famous for its casino, this part of Monaco is busy with tourists catching a glimpse of a lifestyle of which most can only dream. Open-top sports cars cruise past the grand casino building and down to the waterfront and the line of yachts.
There is a €10 charge to enter the casino. Most visitors, ourselves included, opt instead to wander into the lobby and enjoy the ornate decor in this historic building which has served as a glamorous location to many a movie.
Alongside the casino is the hairpin section of the Grand Prix circuit that covers most of the territory of Monaco. Once a year the F1 show comes to town and the place is overrun with sports fans. Don’t even try visiting Monaco at that time unless you’re here specifically for the race.
Nowhere in Monaco is more than a few minutes walk from the sea, and as coastlines go this one is very pleasant. Popular sandy beaches are nestled between the upmarket hotels while hundreds of posh boats bob in the perfectly clear waters of this rich man’s paradise.
There are plenty of good food options along the waterfront, once you acclimatise to the astronomical cost of everything in this part of the world. A tagliatelle carbonara and soft drink cost us €20 in one of the more humble establishments. Perhaps visitors need to suspend reality and enter a make-believe world where they own a yacht and a sportscar and can afford anything on offer (another lobster s’il vous plait!)
So is Monaco worthy of a special visit? If you’re a motor-racing fan or gambler with a special interest in the casino, I guess those are reasons alone to make a visit worthwhile. Likewise for those who are on a mission to visit every country in Europe; a stop in Monaco is compulsory. It’s an easy day trip from Nice or Cannes and the return train fare is a little over €5. As a people watching location it is also a good place to sit on a wall and watch the strange world of the rich and not-so-rich play out in front of you. But for most tourists it will remain a day trip from elsewhere rather than a destination in its own right.